Lincoln Park tops Laurel Highlands in potential star-powered WPIAL championship preview

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Thursday, December 29, 2022 | 10:50 PM


With a hyped crowd watching inside CCBC’s dome, Lincoln Park’s Meleek Thomas made a pair of free throws with 21 seconds left Thursday, the final points in a 70-66 victory over top-ranked Laurel Highlands.

The answer is months away, but was this a WPIAL Class 4A championship preview?

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all,” said Thomas, envisioning an early-March rematch at Petersen Events Center.

“For sure,” said Laurel Highlands’ Rodney Gallagher, who endorsed that idea. “It was fun out there. Both teams are very good. I’m excited about it.”

That’s because this game, which drew Pitt coach Jeff Capel to Beaver County, lived up to expectations. Gallagher scored a game-high 35 points for No. 1 Laurel Highlands (6-1) and teammate Keondre DeShields added 19, but the Mustangs couldn’t quite match the depth of No. 2 Lincoln Park (6-0).

Brandin Cummings scored 23 points and Thomas had 20, but the rest of the Leopards combined for 27. Outside of Gallagher and DeShields, the Laurel Highlands roster accounted for only 12 points.

“Other than Rodney and Keondre, we don’t have much experience,” Laurel Highlands coach Rick Hauger said. “I think that maybe shows up a little bit in a game like this. But at the end of the year, I think those guys we need to come around will come around.”

The game was part of the Central Valley Roundball Holiday Classic. There were three more games on the schedule after Lincoln Park and Laurel Highlands left the arena, but none could quite match their star power. Thomas, Gallagher, Cummings and DeShields all hold Division I college options.

“This was the marquee game today,” Lincoln Park coach Mike Bariski said. “Gallagher is unreal. DeShields is unreal. But we’ve got a couple of unreal guys, too.”

Cummings, a 6-foot-3 junior guard, has Pitt among his D1 offers. Thomas, a 6-4 guard, is ranked among the best sophomores in the country.

With three minutes left, the score was a one-point difference after Gallagher made a runner and a layup on consecutive possessions, cutting Lincoln Park’s lead to 63-62. Gallagher, a West Virginia football recruit, scored 24 points in the second half, including 16 in the third quarter.

Gallagher got help from DeShields, who scored twice in the final minute on a put-back with 32 seconds left and a driving layup at the 22-second mark. The first cut Lincoln Park’s lead to 67-64 and the second made it 68-66.

But nobody other than Gallagher and DeShields scored for Laurel Highlands in the fourth quarter.

“It’s just experience,” Gallagher said. “For the majority of guys who are playing, this is their first year of varsity. They haven’t seen competition like that. They’ll get more and more comfortable with it.”

Cummings had a key layup with less than three minutes left and Thomas went 3 for 4 from the foul line in the final 30 seconds. But Lincoln Park also got a late boost from Dorien McGhee, a less-heralded junior who scored six of his nine points in the fourth quarter.

Cumming and Thomas were outstanding as expected, but Bariski credited starters McGhee, DeAndre Moye and Mikey Crawford for outplaying Laurel Highlands’ supporting cast.

“Our other three guys rebounded the heck out of the ball,” Bariski said. “They put in layups. They stopped guys when they needed stops.”

Laurel Highlands had a hot start, led by seven points in the opening minutes and was ahead 18-15 after one quarter. DeShields scored 11 points in the first quarter. But Lincoln Park used a 9-0 run to win the second quarter 21-10.

Cummings, with older brother and Pitt guard Nelly in the stands, scored 11 points in the first half including a dunk midway through the second quarter.

Lincoln Park led 36-28 at half.

With DeShields in foul trouble, Laurel Highlands turned to Gallagher after halftime. Gallagher scored 16 points in the third quarter, making five of his seven shots and going 5 for 6 from the foul line.

“It was just to go, score the ball and do everything I could to keep my team in it,” Gallagher said.

Laurel Highlands led 52-51 with one minute left in the third after a 3-pointer by Blaise Krizner. But the Mustangs’ lead lasted only seconds before two free throws by Cummings gave Lincoln Park a 53-52 lead after three.

The Leopards never trailed in the fourth.

“We’ve got to take some pressure off of Rodney and Deondre, especially in games like this,” Hauger said. “But I think we’re going to be a better team in a month.”

Laurel Highlands is the reigning 5A champion and also won in 2020. Lincoln Park has won three titles in five years. They’re now the top-ranked teams in Class 4A, but neither coach was ready to pencil their squads into the WPIAL finals.

“I certainly would like for that to be the case, but it’s a long way to go,” Hauger said. “There are an awful lot of good teams in 4A, so you never know what’s going to happen.”

One of those other Class 4A teams in contention, third-ranked Highlands (7-0), defeated Pine-Richland, 60-43, in the game immediately before theirs.

But if Lincoln Park and Laurel Highlands do rematch late this winter, the players are already on board with that idea.

“They’re a great team,” Thomas said. “They’ve got two very good players. If we see each other again, it will be a game.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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